In the top-heavy Atlantic Division, there’s not a lot to figure out in the final month of the regular season: Tampa Bay is going to finish first overall, while Toronto and Boston will play each other in the first round of the playoffs again. For the Lightning, it’s all about staying focused for a bunch of games that, for all intents and purposes, have no effect on the standings.
Tampa Bay, the runaway Presidents’ Trophy leaders, therefore provide a great measuring stick for teams like the Leafs and Bruins – top-five NHL squads themselves. As Toronto’s William Nylander points out, his team offers a good battle for the Lightning, as well.
The Leafs and Lightning play tonight and then once more before the regular season ends. For two teams with high post-season aspirations, it’s a welcome challenge.
“You can get practise in these games to tighten up on things that will help in the playoffs,” Nylander said. “Come playoff time, it’s obviously a little different, but you can get well-prepared.”
Nylander himself is a fascinating case study this season. The talented right winger didn’t suit up for a game until Dec. 6, as the player and team worked out a new contract. It took Nylander awhile to get back into the swing of things and he is still well off his points pace from his first two full NHL seasons, but he has also been one of the team’s best possession players.
Nylander’s versatility has also come in handy of late, as he has played center with Nazem Kadri hurt. It’s that sort of depth that makes Toronto so lethal and it’s amazing to think that Nylander is still averaging just 15 minutes of ice time per game. Not only that, but he’s actually averaging slightly more time on the penalty-kill than he is on the power play, where he has been skating on the second unit. Last year, he didn’t kill penalties at all.
So an optimist could say that Nylander’s diminished role so far is good news for the Maple Leafs, who are deeper this season and better prepared for the playoffs. For Nylander himself, it’s all about getting into the right place at the right time, even if his absence in the fall might have messed him up a bit.
“I started slow, but I’ve been getting back to pace,” he said. “It felt good for 10-12 games and now it’s gone down a little bit, so I want to pick it back up.”
If he can do that, then the Leafs will have a 60-point player on their third line – a luxury most teams do not have (the Lightning have Yanni Gourde in their bottom-six, however).
Of course, the Leafs don’t have to worry about Tampa Bay in the first round; they’ll have their hands full with Boston. The Bruins just had a 19-game point streak snapped and look even more dangerous than they did last season, when they beat Toronto in the first round. You’d think the Leafs would be sick of the Bruins, but Nylander used to be teammates with young Boston star David Pastrnak when they two played in Sweden for Sodertalje – so there is extra motivation.
“It’ll be fun to play them again,” Nylander said. “It’s been a blast playing against him. He’s done well against us, so hopefully we can put a stop to that.”
If the Maple Leafs are going to take out the Bruins in the first round, they’ll need all hands on deck, including Nylander. Truly, the playoffs will be a test to see if the extra rest at the beginning of the year helped or hindered the gifted playmaker. Either way, the results will become very obvious, very quickly in that first-round battle.